Manchester Embedding Sustainability Workshop

Today Think Up ran its fourth Embedding Sustainability workshop, this time at the University of Manchester. Delegates came from Warwick, Liverpool John Moores, Loughborough, Salford, Manchester Metropolitan and the University of Manchester. We were also joined by a member of the ICE’s Sustainability Panel.

The delegates voted to discuss three Principles from the Embedding Sustainability report: establishing the basic building blocks; using systems thinking; and applying judgement to real problems. Over the course of two lively hours of discussion, the key points to emerge from the discussion were:

1) There are many components of taught courses already being delivered that contribute to developing skills for sustainable development, although not all of these components are recognised as doing so.

2) Students are asked to apply judgement to engineering problems, but there is often scope for the decision making process to have more impact on the learner, for example by asking them to apply judgement in a context that is more personal, where the experience is likely to have a far greater transformative effect.

3) While there are plenty of online references for the key concepts of sustainable design, these are disparate and of varying quality. It is also difficult for lectures to find the time to create problem scenarios for students to work through based on real projects. There was a clear call among the participants for an online location collating reference websites for data and worked problems that lecturers and students can refer to.

Other discussion points:
1) Universities can learn a lot from industry about the latest application in practice of the principles of sustainable design.

2) It is difficult to motivate colleagues to embed sustainability in their teaching. One helpful suggestion was to run a mini audit of sustainability teaching with colleagues to identify areas of success and areas for improvement. Several delegates reported that the Embedding Sustainability report had already been helpful in giving other staff suggestions for steps to take.

3) what is the relevance of courses at the analytical end of the spectrum to the teaching of sustainability? Analytical courses provide many of the techniques that are needed to back up decisions related to sustainable development. For example in the case of structural analysis, the course content is essential for understanding structural optimisation, material use and strategies for durability and resilience.

4) There isn’t the time in the curriculum to teach all the basic building blocks, but there would be plenty of opportunity for students to do so in their own time if only there were an online location that gathered key reference material.

5) Students arrive at university with a wealth of background information about the world that they inhabit. This background information can provide useful ‘scaffolding’ for discussion about sustainable development.

6) In university prospectuses, we typically underplay the role that engineers have to play in mitigating and adapting for the effects of climate change, and yet sustainable development is an important factor when young people choose engineering courses, according to Forum for the Future’s presentation on Challenges to Engineering Education for Sustainable Development